- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2002

The great French composer Hector Berlioz has had great biographers who have told his story well. Over half a century ago, the historian Jacques Barzun published his two volume "Hector Berlioz and the Romantic Century" (1950), a pioneering work of cultural history that did much to revive interest in the man who wrote "Symphonie fantastique," "Les Troyans," and "Romeo and Juliet."

Then in 1989, British music critic David Cairns came out with "Berlioz: The Making of an Artist," followed a decade later by his "Berlioz: Servitude and Greatness," a biography for which the word monumental is too slight. Together, Mr. Cairns two volumes take up 1,544 pages of very readable text, accompanied by a handsome array of illustrations.

Yet as splendid as these works are, they play second fiddle to the best work anyones ever done on Berlioz, the composers own "Memoirs," begun in March, 1848, when the composer was 44, and added to until 1865. Berlioz died in 1869. From beginning to end, "The Memoirs" make superb reading, and its a pleasure that is only increased by the excellent Everymans Library edition, translated and edited by David Cairns. First published in 1969, "The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz" has been reissued this year.

Pedants and other tiresome sorts will point out (and have from the moment the "Memoirs" were first published) that the author sometimes stretches the truth, that his memory isnt always accurate, and that on occasion he will spin an anecdote so that hes the hero of the story, when, in truth, he wasnt.

Berlioz does all these things, but for most readers it doesnt matter and never has. And it doesnt matter because the tour that Berlioz offers of his lifes ups and downs isnt just entertaining and well written. Its a deeply touching, very human portrait of a man who wrote great music and for whom any degree of moderation in the pursuit of the two things he loved beyond all measure — his art and love itself — was no virtue.

The "Memoirs" are not the story of one man, however. Berlioz was one of the great Romantics — Lord Byron, Friedrich Holderlin, Alexander Pushkin, and Victor Hugo are close kin — and on its every page his book breathes the spirit of his age. From the first, Romantic melancholy and restlessness defined him. "I suffered agonies," wrote Berlioz, describing himself as a lad of 15, stuck in Isere, his native province.

"I suffered agonies and lay on the ground … stretching out abandoned arms, convulsively tearing up handfuls of grass and wide-eyed innocent daisies … struggling against mortal isolation." He longs for "wings, devouring distance: I want to see, to admire, I want to know love, rapture … I want life in all its grandeur and richness. But my earth-bound body drags me down."

Heady stuff, though not unusual in an ambitious, dreamy boy. But Berlioz never ceased expressing similar sentiments with equal high passion. Here he is at 61, after recalling the image of a woman whose beauty had moved him deeply decades earlier: "Now an overwhelming oppression floods me, I sink to the ground and remain a long time stretched out in an agony of spirit, while with each pulse-beat the hideous words hammer my brain: 'The past! Time! The past! Never! never! never!"

With the Romantics — and particularly the continental Romantics — Berlioz shared a passion for WIlliam Shakespeare. The love of Shakespeare came early. As a young man he concluded: "It is much harder for a Frenchman to sound the depths of Shakespeares style than it is for an Englishman to catch the individual flavour and subtlety of La Fontaine or Moliere." Why? Because "They are continents, Shakespeare is a world."

"Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt," he recalled in middle age, thinking back on his first seeing "Hamlet." "The lightening flash of that sublime discovery opened before me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest depths." Not surprisingly, he fell headlong in love with Harriet Smithson, the Anglo-Irish actress who played the first Ophelia he saw. She became his first wife, but the marriage was not a happy one.

In the "Memoirs," Berlioz chronicles his struggle to become a composer. His father, a country doctor, opposed his career choice. The composer Luigi Cherubini, director of the Paris Conservatoire where he studied, disliked the ambitious young man whose musical talents he professed to be nil. Berlioz got back by caricaturing, with great success in the "Memoirs," what he saw as the older mans hidebound ways.

But it wasnt just Cherubini. What comes as something of a surprise for the modern reader famililar with Berliozs present fame is how difficult it was for him to win the high regard he deserved, both as a composer and conductor. The great violinist Niccolo Paganini recognized his greatness immediately. So did Franz Liszt and others, particularly in Germany.

But many prominent French critics and others in the musical world of Paris professed to regard Berliozs compositions as eccentric, even perverse, rather than original and exciting and they denounced him loudly, decade after decade.In his "Memoirs," Berlioz describes conductors who deliberately sabotage his works when they perform them. He writes of Department of Fine Arts bureaucrats who refused to turn over government funds hes been awarded, simply out of spite. On a very memorable occasion, he receives a letter from an admirer warning him that friends of one of his most powerful enemies plan to sabotage a huge concert Berlioz is going to conduct.

His own works were to be featured, along with pieces by composers Berlioz particularly admired such as Gluck and Handel. What the saboteurs proposed to do was slit drumheads, grease the bows of the double-basses, and in the middle of the long concert, stand up and loudly demand that the orchestra perform the "Marseillaise." Forewarned, Berlioz was able to thwart their efforts.

Why their strong dislike? Berlioz attributed it to envy, lack of imagination, and fear of innovation, and, of course, he was right. This he had the pleasure of proving when he passed off his own composition, "Shepherds Farewell," as the work of an imaginary earlier French composer named Pierre Ducre. Berlioz laughed when he learned that people who heard the songs at a concert declared that Berlioz could never have composed anything so simple and beautiful, demanding to know more about the great Ducre.

But the "Memoirs" arent one long complaint about the failure to receive due recognition. Theyre also full of wry comment and observation, much of it gleaned from Berliozs extensive travels. He recalls a fellow he knew when he lived in Rome, another student, "a great seducer of housemaids," whose terror on one occasion, was "comical to behold."

The unfortunate lad had been caught in the act — with another mans wife — "and lives in constant far of being murdered. He darent leave his room." Berlioz mentions the young mans "infallible technique for getting [housemaids] to fall for you was 'always look sad and wear white trousers."

On a trip to Russia, it was the censors who incurred Berliozs wit. At a wintertime performance of his "Damnation of Faust," officials forbade the student drinking song to be sung. It runs, "While the moon winks down on us, let us search the town for girls, so that tomorrow, happy Caesars, we can say: 'I came. I saw. I conquered." "Such expressions the censors believed too naughty to be heard in public and the song had to be sung in jibberish. Comments Berlioz: This "is why the inhabitants of Moscow are still the most moral on earth and why, in spite of all the moons blandishments, the students never go searching the town for girls … in winter."

Berliozs most extraordinary anecdote in the "Memoirs," however, and the one that reveals most about him is his story of looking up a woman he hadnt seen for 49 years. He had first met Estelle F–- when he was a boy of 12 and she a few years older. He had been smitten the instant he saw her. They met a very few times and had never been close, but like Dantes glimpse of Beatrice, Berliozs sighting of Estelle remained with the rest of his life, intensifying.

In his 60s, he decided to visit her, now old and a grandmother. When he knocked on her door, the past disappeared. "I knew her step, her bearing like a goddess. God! how her face had changed — her complexion darkened, her hair growing grey. Yet my heart did not waiver for an instant."

He became like a young man, full of awkward passion. Estelle F–- accepted his declaration of love with a simple dignity he appreciated and responded with what is probably the kindest comment she could make, under the circumstances. "I am most touched by the feelings you have kept for me, and most grateful for them, M. Berlioz."

After the meeting, Berlioz muses: "Love or music — which uplifts man to the sublimest heights?" To which he answers: "why separate them? the are two wings of the soul."

Belioz shares show much of himself in the "Memoirs." Friends and aquaintances such as Felix Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, and a host of others make personal appearances, a very drunk late-at-night Franz Liszt who nonetheless rises the next day to play the piano perfectly at a long-scheduled concert.

Always, Berlioz has a keen eye for whats happening around him. In Germany, for example, even though hes pleased by how much the Germans admire his music and how well they perform it, he can still exclaim: "For sheer ludicrous ferocity I have not seen anything to compare with a fanatical German nationalist fully aroused."

At one point in the "Memoirs," Belioz describes his own heart as "a heart that forgets nothing." Hes absolutely right and its why this book is so marvelous. His heart was indeed a heart that forgot nothing and more importantly, it was a truly great heart.

Stephen Goode is a senior writer at Insight magazine.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide